Five Films: Jennifer Lopez
Twenty-five years ago, Jennifer Lopez - or, if you like, Jenny from the Block, J. Lo, or La Lopez (nope, I don't like it - ed.) - embarked on a serious film career. After several years dancing as a Fly Girl on the sketch-comedy series In Loving Color, Lopez segued into film. These days, while she stars on NBC's Shades of Blue (which I have yet to see but want to check out), she seems most regarded as simply a celebrity - famous for being famous. She has a thriving music career, but more attention seems placed on whomever she's dating than her actual work.
For a brief window of time, however, Lopez displayed great potential as an actor and a solid film career seemed inevitable. Performances in films like Money Train (1995), Blood and Wine (1996) Anaconda (1997), U-Turn (1997), Out of Sight (1998), The Cell (2000), and Enough (2002), seemed to point towards future greatness. We all know what happened, of course. Her music career became more successful and her celebrity increased to such dizzying heights that movie audiences seemed unable to take her seriously in any role other than her public persona of J. Lo. It's worth revisiting a handful of her early films to remember a time when acting success seemed like an inevitability for Lopez.
Hanging up her Fly Girl outfits - yet, remaining forever Fly, of course - Jenny from the Block (stop that - ed.) began making strides in film. In 1995, she starred alongside the decade's best action-comedy duo, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, in the NYC transit cop thriller heist flick Money Train. Her magnetism and chemistry with the camera - and the two male leads - was immediately apparent. What's most exciting about the performance is Lopez's utter lack of self-consciousness; she's free and full of electricity. It's the kind of energetically raw and loose performance that's bound to fade over time, once fame kicks in, and all that entails ("Bennifer," anyone?)
In Money Train, though, she's fresh and new, bounding through the film with real verve - whether sparring with Snipes (both in and out of bed), dancing up a storm (and showing of her Fly Girl roots), smiling coyly at the boys, or relishing arresting the film's oily and evil police boss (Robert Blake, a few years before he went on trial for murdering his wife), she's spellbinding. Honestly, it's still the most fun performance of her career (and a personal favorite of mine), which is bittersweet when you consider how long ago it was now.
By any metric you want to apply to it, Anaconda is not a good film. Yet it certainly qualifies as a "so bad it's good" film. The story of a ragtag documentary film crew navigating the Amazon River while a monstrous anaconda picks them off one by one, the film is loaded with nineties stalwarts - an always-grimacing Ice Cube, a resplendently handsome Eric Stoltz, a charmingly goofy Owen Wilson, and Remote Control's very own Kari Wuhrer. Then there's industry vet Jon Voight, turning in one of the ultimate "WTF" performances as a Paraguayan snake hunter (why not!). He's so far over the top that he may never come back down.
Where's J. Lo in this hot mess? She's the director/den mother in charge of this motley crew of misfits. You can almost see in her eyes that she realizes this one's so gonzo that her best option is to play the straight woman, underplaying everything while the rest of the crew chews the scenery with gusto. It may seem like a minor work, even in her fairly light filmography, but it's a good example of how she could hold down the center of a film, even while it was collapsing in on itself.
Out of Sight remains her best work on film, a pinnacle performance that she may never equal but which stands the test of time as a high-water mark of nineties cinema. Based on the Elmore Leonard novel, Steven Soderbergh's exceptional film adaptation brings the character of Karen Sisco to life - and much of the credit must go to Lopez. She's fabulous as the no-nonsense, tough-but-sensitive U.S. Marshal who just happens to be falling for a criminal. It's a lovely and nuanced piece of acting, mixing dry humor with dramatic chops, creating a character that seems wholly original.
Who can forget the chemistry between La Lopez and ER's Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney) in the trunk of that car? The heat generated between them throughout the film is palpable, the kind of screen magic that has rarely been equaled since. As memorable as Clooney is, it’s Lopez who leaves the lasting impression. This is the film that caused me to shout at anyone who would listen (sorry, friends): She's an actor on the rise, so keep your eyes on her. Well, to quote Mike Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, "I don't know what the hell happened," but she never equaled this performance again. Her work here is so magnificent though, that it almost doesn't matter; at least we'll always have Out of Sight.
In the visually stunning, unforgettably haunting brain-bender The Cell, Lopez is a child psychologist who descends into the dark and twisted mind of a catatonic serial killer (a truly disturbing Vincent D'Onofrio) via a new virtual reality treatment, in order to locate his last victim. Lopez was by now a tabloid and celebrity news sensation, and director Tarsem Singh smartly cast her in a role that calls for her to be what mass audiences perceive her to be - attractively ethereal, yet mostly unknowable.
We never learn much about her character beyond that she's extremely compassionate and good at her work, with a unique talent for reaching patients who otherwise seem unreachable. Lopez, often exquisitely costumed and with equally artful hair and makeup, is the centerpiece the film's astonishing phantasmagoria revolves around; Singh positions her as the point of light against which to measure the darkness inside the killer's mind.
Whether intentionally or not, Enough serves dual purposes. First, it's a slicker yet powerfully effective entry in the genre of women's revenge films. Yet just behind the surface, it also acts as a sort of meta-commentary on Lopez's then, overwhelming, celebrity. In the film, she's battered and abused by a horrifically evil husband (Billy Campbell). In reality, she was being hounded and harassed by the media, fans, and paparazzi. Okay, it's a stretch, but it does add a new layer of intrigue to an already solid film. Ultimately, the most satisfying aspect of the film is also an abused victim's fantasy come to life: Lopez trains like a beast, turning herself into a stealth ninja warrior and striking back at her abuser with cathartic vengeance.
Unfortunately Enough didn't signal where her career was headed. Instead, her other 2002 film did, the tepid Maid in Manhattan. A series of underwhelming or just plain awful rom-coms followed, including Gigli (2003), Shall We Dance (2004), and Monster-in-Law (2005). Lopez seemed increasingly disinterested, even disengaged in her performances. That initial spark, so raw and electric in her early work, started to drift away.
Look, Lopez wasn't headed for an Oscar-laden career like Meryl Streep, but it once seemed likely she'd at least turn in more memorable performances than she has to this point. Shades of Blue might indicate a return to early career form for Lopez, only this time on television. I'll have to watch and check back with you on that. In the meantime, at least we have that small clutch of early films where she showed promise, in the years before superstardom subsumed everything else. Money Train and Out of Sight will never disappoint me, that's for sure.